Medical Outcomes and Customer Experiences

My father was diagnosed with an oral cancer last March. He had been staying with me in Delhi and fortunately, we had plenty of choice in selecting a hospital, where we could possibly have him treated. After carefully evaluating these choices, we zeroed in on two possible facilities –  Medanta Medicity, the new hospital in Gurgaon and Max Hospital in Saket. At Medanta the leaders of the Oncology team were my colleagues during my stint at Artemis Hospital in Gurgaon, and I enjoyed a great relationship with both Dr. Ashok Vaid and Dr. Teji Kataria, the medical and the radiation oncologists respectively. At Max Hospitals I did not know the doctors personally, they did not have a cancer facility when I worked there, but I had plenty of other close friends who ran the hospital and vouched for the caliber of their team of Dr. AK Anand and Dr. Anupama Hooda. Ultimately, with all things equal we chose Max, simply because it is closer to our home and the logistics prevailed.

This was in March and my father had since undergone Targeted Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy on an IGRT machine. Post the treatment, he is doing as well as can be expected and I am extremely grateful to the oncologists at Max Hospital. In these past 6 months, I have been visiting the facility often and have become familiar with the customer handling processes at the hospital, which unfortunately still leaves a lot to be desired. While, the medical outcome of the treatment we have received at the hospital has been good, purely as a customer, my experience with the hospital services can hardly be termed satisfactory.

Here are some suggestions as to what can be done to improve the overall hospital experience.

The Issues with Group Practice

The radiation team at Max Hospital follows a group practice system and is led by Dr. AK Anand, who comes across as an extremely competent and experienced physician. He has a fairly large team of physicians, who support him in the OPD. Now, these are mostly young physicians earning their spurs under Dr. Anand’s supervision. Since, the team works on a group practice system, a patient gets seen by any of these physicians in the OPD. Thus, more often than not it so happens that one meets a new physician whenever one visits the hospital. From a patient’s point of view, it is very disconcerting to interact with a new physician and start the entire conversation right from the beginning every time one visits the hospital OPD. Also, the entire team is not of the same pedigree, many doctors are younger, less experienced and seem to be apprenticed with Dr. Anand. They often do not come across as confident and as sure as Dr. Anand, a very important factor, when the disease involved is a cancer.

The entire system revolves around a physical file, where all the doctors jot down their noting on loose sheaf of paper, which is than filed away. Each OPD visit means that the physician assigned to see the patient goes through the file, figure out what had happened in the previous visit and issues fresh instructions on the file. I submit it is quite impossible for a physician to study this file in the time that he is spending with the patient and fully understand what has happened thus far. The chances of human error are high. Max Hospital is bristling with posters on the notice boards about a state of the art e-initiative which is supposed to take care of all medical records electronically. While one goes through the tall claims about this new system, one finds it hard to reconcile it with the archaic processes in the Max Cancer Centre.

The system seems to have been designed around the physicians, one feels it should be, in this age and time around the customers. It should assign a particular doctor to a patient and he should see the patient through. If there are junior doctors involved, they should see patients along with the seniors, till they themselves feel comfortable in handling patients on their own. The physical files are ridiculous and can be done away with completely. Like in any other modern hospital, the information should flow seamlessly on a well-connected network. Reports, instructions etc. can and should be as far as possible e-mailed to patients.

The Appointment System

Strange as it may sound the appointments given to the patients have little value. Almost all patients are required to wait for a minimum of 30-40 minutes, whether they have a confirmed appointment with their physicians or not. Because of the prevalent group practice system, it is also quite immaterial whether you have an appointment with Dr. A or Dr. B.,  you can be ushered into the office of any  doctor on the team and he will see you irrespective of the fact that you have an appointment with a particular doctor. Thus, I have not really understood, why are appointments given for any particular doctor. In this system, it would make greater sense if one was to just walk in and gets seen by which ever doctor who is free at that point in time!!!

The Files

The files are the most important element in this entire process. Sometimes I have wondered what would happen if it would be misplaced. Actually it happened with us once, when the file had been requisitioned by the medical oncologist, and it took two hours, some very heated words and a few very flustered employees to find it. In the absence of the file, I would reckon the doctors too would be quite helpless. I have been assured that the paper file does have an electronic back-up, which honestly I doubt. I shudder to think that in this age and time, at Max Hospital, we might be at the mercy of a file, which changes hands every time a doctor sees us and God forbid, if somehow it is lost in the hospital.

While all this may sound strange and terribly dated, I must say that the system somehow works. We have no complaints on the medical outcome, which is the primary reason we have been visiting the hospital. As a patient and a care-giver I do not have much to complain about. However, as a modern-day paying consumer, wouldn’t I want my hospital experience to be far superior and fool-proof than what it is.

Hospitals must understand that in this age of customer experiences, it isn’t the medical outcome alone that counts. Max should know this better than anyone else.

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The Advantages of an Aware Care-Giver

My father started Chemotherapy and concurrent Radiation therapy for an oral carcinoma earlier this month. Cancer is a scary disease and putting a loved one through the ordeal of  cancer treatment is not easy. The disease is a devious one, you beat it back in one place, it pops up somewhere else, you get rid of it for a few years, and you never know when it will turn up again. Now while I have worked in hospitals and am familiar with terms like Chemotherapy and Radiation Therapy and things called IGRT (Image Guided Radiation Therapy-the first machine in Delhi was installed at Artemis in Gurgaon, where I was employed), it is only now that I am discovering how little I knew about the disease and its treatment.

I believe it is very important for family and care-givers to be well-informed about the disease and the treatment modalities being offered by the doctors. While we chose a hospital and the team that will take care of my father’s treatment, I read as much as I could about the disease. With the knowledge explosion around us and the almighty Google, at my service I found a treasure trove of information that was very handy in equipping me with managing my father’s illness and monitoring his treatment.

My father suffers from a cancer of the base of the tongue. The disease had spread to his adjacent lymph nodes, when it was diagnosed. A FNAC, wisely ordered by our internist revealed the tumour. The onco-surgeon I met ordered a PET-CT Scan to check if the disease has spread any further. I knew about the PET CT and how it worked and what it revealed, to understand why was it necessary. Once we had found the Primary tumour and settled on the treatment modalities (Radiation with concurrent targeted chemo-therapy), I read about the latest advances in these areas.

I also met medical oncologists who explained to me how the targeted therapy worked and why it was far superior to the conventional chemotherapy, which entails horrendous side-effects. The Radiation oncologists I met, explained to me about the radiation planning, the fantastic capabilities of modern-day radiation equipment and how they can deliver high doses of radiation with a great deal of precision and finesse. While, I marveled at the technology at our disposal, I knew the real test would be when we go through the therapy and how would my father cope with the like side-effects of the treatment.

Learning about the disease and the treatment options have helped me tremendously. Firstly, it has made me a partner in the fight against the disease. I am able to understand, what the medical teams are doing and how it might be helping us in dealing with the disease. This is most important as it gives me a semblance of control, a little power over a mighty foe. It also allows me to explain to my father about what to expect, to comfort him and to give him strength. Last night, as he blew his nose, a blob of blood coloured his handkerchief. Alarmed, he called me and I was able to explain to him that this was something that we would expect because of the radiation he is undergoing. A small matter, but a big reassurance for the patient.

Knowledge about the disease also allows me to hold informed discussions with the doctors treating my father. They too feel that they can explain to me in simple terms, what they are attempting and what has been the progress so far. Communicating well with your doctors is always a good idea, once they are comfortable, they can share with you a lot of information, which one can use and relate to during the course of the treatment.

Most importantly, as I sit besides my father watching the cocktail of the chemotherapy drugs drip into his forearm, I am able to supervise his treatment. This is not to say that the team of nurses and the residents are not good enough, but as we all know mistakes do happen and when one is dealing with cancer, they may prove very costly. Also, I realize the fact that for the nurses and the doctors, my father is one of the many patients they handle in a day, for me he is the only one and hence, even if I raise a few false alarms, it is worth it.

Finally, I would like to believe that a well-informed care giver, who is actively participating in patient care, while ensuring he does not get in the way, is a huge asset for the patient as well as the medical teams. I am willing to bet, medical outcomes would be far better for patients, who get this kind of support.

When faced with a sudden medical exigency it is imperative for caregivers to arm themselves with the relevant knowledge of the disease and for medical folks to encourage care-givers to do so. It really helps everyone.

The Necessity of Sunday OPDs

The other day a colleague called on a Sunday morning. He was hoping to meet a doctor in a hospital OPD and was seeking directions to the hospital. The colleague, whom I will call Sanjay here, had recently joined work and was for some reason feeling a little under the weather. Nothing serious, but the usual stresses, which are so familiar to sales people in the month of March. When he shared his symptoms with me, I advised him to see a doctor and on this Sunday morning he was headed to the hospital.

However, much to his dismay I informed him that hospital OPD’s are generally closed on Sunday mornings and he might as well head back or he was really unwell he could visit the emergency services. ‘Listen, I really do not think I need to go to the ER, can you help me find a hospital, where in a physician can examine me, check my BP and hopefully start me on some medication that can take care of my niggling symptoms?’ hollered Sanjay over the phone.

Here is why I believe Sunday OPD’s are a great idea.

Most people like Sanjay, who lead busy overworked lives find it difficult to take time off from work and visit their physicians, particularly for small niggles except on Sundays. A lingering cough, a bad cold, a running nose, a painful joint, a niggling back ache are pretty much part of the power packed 9 to 9 week. Most people ignore these or try self medication to keep going till the weekend. (I know they shouldn’t, but they do). If things haven’t taken a turn for the better by then, Sunday mornings are the time to see the doctor. Thus, for a hospital running Sunday OPD’s, would mean offering a great convenience to its customers.

Saturdays are generally the busiest in a hospital. The simple reason is that in many work places, Saturday is a holiday and customers get an opportunity to visit the hospital to see their doctors, get the pending diagnostic tests done, get the physiotherapy they need and attend to their own and their families healthcare needs.  For the same reason, Sundays can be even busier.

While I worked at Artemis Health Institute in Gurgaon, we had started doing a “Public Forum’, on Sunday mornings. This involved inviting our customers and pretty much the public in general to come to the hospital and listen to doctors discuss common medical conditions in layman’s terms. Post the presentations we had an interactive session, where the doctors took questions from the audience. The sessions ended with brunch, which afforded opportunity for people to interact with the doctors one on one. When the idea was first mooted, I must confess, I was not sure of the kind of public response to expect. My fears evaporated on the morning of the first day that we held the forum. We had a house-full with people standing in the aisles of the 270 seater auditorium we had in the hospital. We not only generated a full-house, we also generated lots of goodwill from the local community.

Thus Sunday OPD’s are not only a revenue opportunity, they also are a wonderful opportunity to generate the goodwill of the local community. It is also an opportunity for the hospital to communicate that it cares.

With all this going for a Sunday OPD, why do hospitals are still chary of having a full-fledged Sunday OPD?

The answer is that they can not get the doctors to come out and work on Sundays. Most doctors love their Sunday mornings as much as you and I do and hate to work (just like you and me, I guess!) Sundays. Hospitals have tried cajoling and even forcing them to attend to Sunday OPD’s but have met with no success. They have offered other weekdays as holidays in lieu of Sundays, which too hasn’t worked.

The only way to convince the doctors to do a Sunday OPD is to convince them of its immense value both from a business as well as a customer need point of view. The hospitals must also make it worth the while for the doctors by handsomely rewarding them for attending OPD’s on Sundays. Last but not the least the hospitals must spend big bucks in marketing the Sunday OPD’s. Once the patients start trickling in, the doctors too will not mind spending their Sunday mornings in the hospital.

Indian Healthcare 2010

Here is a list of 10 things one would like to see happen in healthcare services arena in India in the New Year.

1. Healthcare Service providers should move faster towards recognising the patient as a customer and focusing on delivering ‘Total Patient Care’. This would include better medical care as well as much superior levels of hospital services. Hospitals need to invest heavily in people and process improvements to achieve the goal of ‘Total Patient Care’.

2. Investment in the hospital brand. Most hospitals in India are chary of investing in the brand and whatever little marketing communication that happens is purely tactical, meant to drive traffic or communicate the commencement of a new service or the addition of another doctor. This must change. Hospitals must find a credible and differentiated positioning in the consumer’s mind and move quickly to occupy it.

3. Develop an information resource pool that allows patients and caregivers to check out the hospital services, compare doctor’s qualifications, training, specialisation and years of experience.

4. Focus on wellness rather than illnesses. Indian hospitals are mostly about sickness and ordinary folks dread visiting hospitals. It would be a lot better if our hospitals also incorporated wellness services and promoted them aggressively. Prevention and community medicine should become critical areas of focus.

5. Develop sustainable and high quality outreach programs by seeking local community participation. I live next doors to Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals in New Delhi and I often wonder, wouldn’t it be great if this hospital ran a community health program in our area. The local community can offer space for the hospital to run and manage a small clinic with a round the clock nursing coverage and doctors (family physicians and specialists) visiting for a couple of hours everyday. Imagine, all major hospitals running maybe 5 such clinics in areas abutting them. The hospitals will not only get more patients, they will earn tremendous goodwill of the local community.

6. Use social media to create patient communities and facilitate constant exchange of thoughts and ideas. Let medical experts join in to provide guidance and keep the community interactions at an even keel. We had tried something like this at Artemis Health Institute in Gurgaon. Unfortunately it fizzled out once I moved on. More hospitals need to remain connected with their patients in a meaningful manner, even when they do not need the hospital. It is an investment in a relationship, which will pay dividends in the long term.

7. Improve Emergency services. I recall calling Apollo Hospitals once to rush an ambulance to my residence to pick up my wife who had accidently hurt herself and was bleeding profusely. I explained that I was at work and was on my way as well. I reached home before the ambulance and brought my wife to the Emergency in my car. The ambulance never reached my place because the Emergency services at the hospital kept calling my wife at our home landline phone to confirm whether she was really hurt!!!

8. Government run hospitals treating the poor are models of sloth, inefficiency and corruption. It would be great if private enterprise forges some kind of a win-win partnership with these hospitals and improves services. I am sure the savings from reducing crippling systemic inefficiencies will itself ensure decent profits for the private healthcare enterprises. The government must take initiatives in inviting a few carefully selected private healthcare organisations to participate in this experiment.

9. Health Insurance must penetrate deeper and wider. The claims processing should become less cumbersome. In this age of instant communication, hospitals and insurance companies manually fax documents, seek patient histories and look for loop holes to wriggle out of paying claims. This must end. Insurance companies and hospitals must connect with each other seamlessly and exchange information that helps patients get better service.

10. Rural and semi urban India must get its due share in the development of healthcare infrastructure. The government must encourage investments in primary and secondary care  in these areas. Unless we have more and more people accessing reasonably good quality healthcare services close to where they live, the India growth story will remain a big sham.

Here is wishing everyone a happy and healthy 2010.

Pic courtesy http://www.muhealth.org

Doctors and Healthcare Advertising in India

Many years ago when I worked at a hospital chain, our advertising agency had come up with a campaign featuring happy patients. The hospital wanted to showcase their doctors. The objective of the advertising was to highlight the hospital’s expertise and superior services and position it on the ‘care’ platform.

The advertising agency and the hospital had been at loggerheads on this. The agency was dead certain that showing hospital doctors in ad visuals was a bad idea. They had come up with the images of happy people, who had had wonderful experiences at the hospital. The copy proceeded to narrate the experience in glowing terms, capturing the essence of the hospital and making a point about its medical and other services. I had liked the ads, though I found them a little run of the mill. Nothing very extraordinary but steady communication, which made its point. It however never saw the light of the day.

In those days (and I suspect in many hospitals even today) the brand manager had to run the ads past the medical folks. The prevalent thinking was that the medical people will be able to spot bloomers and also come up with great suggestions and those could be incorporated in the communication. However, I quickly learnt that the reality was usually very different. Most medical folks had very little understanding of consumer facing communication, and most wanted themselves featuring in the ads. Many also wanted images of them operating on patients and were keen to showcase all the gory details of their glorious profession.  Some even had suggestions on how ad copy headlines and even hospital logo was to be arranged. The advertising agencies hated this mutilation of their advertising and the brand manager had the task of balancing the demands of the doctor, the agency and the brand itself.

As I gained in experience, I realized that a lot of hospital advertising had very little to do with end consumers. Now, this may sound absurd, but let me explain. Often hospitals would hire high profile doctors committing huge marketing spends on promoting them and their specialities. This would be the understanding between the hospital bigwigs and the doctor concerned. Thus, a significant purpose of the advertising will be to keep the doctor in good humour and honour a commitment made to him.  Thus the doctor would legitimately expect to feature in the communication and try and showcase his skills.

Unfortunately, even now one rarely comes across real ‘brand’ advertising in healthcare in India.  Most hospitals still prefer to bet on individual doctors and shy away from investing in the hospital brand.  New hospitals do a little ‘launch’ related advertising, however there too quite often one encounters a well known doctor prominently featured in the communication.

Recently I came across advertising for Alchemist Hospital in Gurgaon, featuring the well known cardiac surgeon Dr. P Venugopal. He was till recently the director of the All India Institute of Medical Sciences and has now joined Alchemist Hospital in Gurgaon. Max Healthcare announced the commencement of their cancer services leading in with the doctors they have hired. They also ran ads featuring Dr. Pradeep Choubey, a well known laparoscopic surgeon who has joined them from Sir Gangaram Hospital.As a consumer, why do I need to know how Dr. Choubey looks to understand that he has now moved from Sir Gangaram Hospital to Max Hopsital. Yes, as a consumer I would like to know how Dr. Choubey’s expertise and services makes Max Healthcare a better hospital.

Seeing these ads recently reminded me of my struggles as a young brand manager. Even after so many years, it seems in healthcare communication nothing much has changed.

Here is wishing everyone a Merry Christmas!!!

Pic courtesy http://www.istockphoto.com

Dr. Naresh Trehan at the HT Leadership Summit

Dr. TrehanI had the privilege of listening to Dr. Naresh Trehan at the HT Leadership Summit organised by the Hindustan Times in New Delhi on Oct 30th and 31st 2009. The Leadership Summit has over the years become the marquee event in the city’s calendar and leaders like the Prime Minister, the Finance Minister and a former US President (George W Bush) addressed the gathering, which was composed of the who’s who of the Delhi elite. Dr. Trehan, who is widely regarded as one of the most accomplished cardiac surgeons in the country, was invited to speak on the challenges that the healthcare industry faces and how he saw things working out by 2020.

Dr. Trehan spoke with great passion and expressed anguish at the huge gap that exists in the supply of healthcare to the haves and ‘have nots’  in our country. “While Delhi draws thousands of patients from across the globe, 50 kms outside the city, one would struggle to find a qualified physician. India has some of the finest healthcare facilities, comparable to the very best anywhere in the world, which offer services at a fraction of the cost in the west, yet most Indians can hardly access these. The real challenge is how do we bridge this huge divide”, pointed out Dr. Trehan.

The prescription that he had for the malaise was simple enough.   Continue reading

Marketing With In

Memorial HospitalHere is an interesting exercise that I recommend hospital marketers to try out with their colleagues in the hospital. Select a group of 30 individuals working in the hospital, preferably those who handle customers. Include in the group a few medical folks, doctors, nurses, front office executives, billing executives, F&B personnel and a few guys from housekeeping. Ask them simple questions on what the hospital brand means to them.

You would be surprised with the variety of answers you are likely to get.

All marketers try and look for a unique customer proposition for their hospitals, one which they believe the hospital delivers to its customers. The proposition is carefully selected after many a long ‘brain storming’ sessions involving the hospital’s leadership team, the branding and communications experts from advertising agencies pitching for the lucrative account. After these hectic sessions what often emerges is a positioning statement, which is than condensed into the hospital baseline, which is than incorporated in the logo of the hospital. It is in essence the consumer promise, which than is communicated to the external world in right earnest. However, what they fail to do is communicate this promise with the same vigour and zeal with customer facing employees, who are actually tasked with delivering this promise.

Let me take examples from two hospitals, where I used to work.

Artemis Health Institute in Gurgaon says that it is all about the ‘art of healthcare’. Max Healthcare similarly professes to be ‘caring for you …for life’. Artemis believes that its services are differentiated from other hospitals because it focuses on the softer side of medicine. The arguement is that the best infrastructure and world class medical faculty is a given, and easy to replicate. What really distinguishes this hospital from others is not what it delivers but how it delivers. Similarly Max Healthcare is all about superlative care, what the hospital calls ‘patient centric care’. It prides itself in delivering great patient care at all customer touchpoints and at every patient interaction.

Now these are indeed lofty goals. I would even go ahead and aver that when these hospitals were being conceived and set up, the founding teams did believe in these ideals. The hospital communication program was designed to put across these differentiations and a fair amount of energy and effort was expanded in developing communication, which helped establish the hospital’s core values. However, and here is the nub of the matter, these hospitals just did not do enough to communicate these values to their own folks down the line who were actually supposed to deliver these sterling objectives.

In the initial days of commencing operations the hospitals did make an effort to train people in handling and treating patients as customers. However, the initial enthusiasm waned soon enough, competition poached many a well trained individuals and somewhere in the hurly burly of running large hospitals the idealism of the past gave way to an all pervading cynicism. Training individuals in the ideals and core beliefs of the hospital became a chore and the trainers too lost their passion.Thus the marketing promise, the all important differentiator remains only in the minds of resolute brand managers who faithfully continue to reproduce these lines with the hospital logos and the colours.

Unfortunately, this is true of most hospitals I know. A brand promise must be delivered unerringly and all the time. For, which hospitals must spend time and serious effort in keeping the promise alive amongst those who are supposed to deliver it a million times everyday.

Pic courtesy http://www.flickr.com